I was a winemaker for a few days. I am not sure what I helped make will be vinegar or Château Rayas, but I hung out at a winery for a few days last week crushing, fermenting and pressing grapes. And it was a hell of a lot of fun.
I wasn’t at a chi-chi, mega-bucks winery. It was actually the farthest thing away from so many of the cathedrals of winemaking that I have been to over the years. It was basically a small warehouse with a dozen or so open concrete vats to ferment grapes and rows of used oak barrels to age the wine. It was more home winemaking than anything else. We had to put bags of ice into the fermenting grape must to cool it all down.
The sort of "off-the-wall" thing was that the winery was in Mexico, located in the Valle de Guadalupe, about two and a half hours south of San Diego by car. Winemaker Hugo d’Acosta and his wife Gloria invited me down to learn about winemaking first hand in his small cooperative winery called La Escuelita. And there were another dozen friends and wine merchants for the four-day winemaking adventure.
I have fallen in love with the vineyards of Mexico, particularly the twisted old head-pruned vines of Grenache and Carignan. They seem soulful, even mystical. They survive the arid and dry growing season with very little effort, while most of the modern plantings in the region need irrigation. In fact, it was so hot and dry last week that most of the new plantings were under some sort of hydric stress. Many of the grapes picked were shriveled up like raisins. The old head-pruned vines looked fresh and green-leafed.
This part of Baja California has been making wines for more than a century, but it’s only in the last 20 years that it has been making serious modern wines thanks to the foresight and hard work of people like the d’Acostas. Most wines are red blends of varieties including Grenache, Zinfandel, Carignan, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. I am not sure what many of the winemakers base their blends on. Whether they make a Grenache, Cab and Merlot blend or a Zin and Petite Syrah seems more of a whim than anything based on the quality of the soil or grapes themselves. I still believe that a terroir-based wine culture in the valley would make more sense, considering the differences in microclimates in the region, soil, and grape varieties, but maybe I am wrong?
There’s also the question of salinity in wine. Many of the vineyards are heavily irrigated, and a large part of the water is salty, which apparently leaves a residual salt level in the soil. The fact that most winemakers add water to their must only exacerbates the problem – especially if the water comes straight from the tap.
Another major problem is that some winemakers think that they have already arrived when they have just reached the point of departure, in my opinion. Egos can be pretty big, even in an isolated place like Valle de Guadalupe. I consistently hear that they believe their wines are excellent because they sell almost the entire production in Mexico City and at very high prices. That’s not good enough, I told them.
Myopic is a word that comes to mind for some winemakers in the region. Is it good enough to only sell their wines in Mexico? What about comparing their wines with the best in the world? It’s like them saying Mexican soccer is world class when their national team never competes in the Olympics or other international events.
At a dinner over the weekend at a restaurant in the region, I brought a bottle of 1997 Aldo Conterno Barolo Granbussia because I wanted to serve it to a tiny winemaker who has made his reputation for making Nebbiolo. He is also an electrician. We first tasted his wines that included a Mission, Dolcetto and Petite Syrah blend, a Sangiovese, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo blend, and a pure Nebiollo. They were good wines, but over-extracted and jammy with candied fruit.
The winemaker, whose first name was Arturo, was very proud and proceeded to tell me all about Nebbiolo and other Italian varietals – although he had never been to Italy. He then tasted the Conterno wine and proceeded to say that it had volatile acidity and that he preferred his wines. I was stunned. I then sarcastically asked him how his 1982 was drinking or his 1978. The conversation was over. In his mind, he made world-class wines. I now call him Arturo Conterno.
Obviously, such unbridled pride isn’t the norm in Baja wine country. Most producers, especially the dozens of new and small winemakers, are just trying to figure the whole thing out and do the best they can. Many are just farmers, and grapes are just another crop. They are making wines now in hopes of making a little more money than they would by just selling the grapes. There is so much potential for high quality winemaking in Valle de Guadalupe.
It reminds me of Napa Valley in the early 1980s when I was just starting to work for Wine Spectator. I was based in the office in San Francisco and I would regularly drive up to wine country and hang out with winemakers. The hills of Sonoma and Napa Valley had numerous small winemakers who were struggling to come up with something they could be proud to bottle.
I guess that’s what I was trying to do last weekend with the handful of new Mexican friends at La Escuelita. It’s amazing how emotional it all gets once you start picking, crushing and fermenting grapes. The world almost seems to stand still outside the winery, but it keeps moving forward even as the grape must ferments.
Monticello Vineyards — Napa, California — September 19, 2008 2:27am ET
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — September 19, 2008 11:36am ET
James Suckling — — September 19, 2008 11:47am ET
James Suckling — — September 19, 2008 1:28pm ET
Jay Dworsky — Ensenada, Mexico — September 20, 2008 1:17am ET
Mauricio De Leon — Monterrey, N.L. Mexico — September 20, 2008 9:15pm ET
Steven Dryden — Guadalupe Valley — September 24, 2008 10:22pm ET
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